Ready to take on the world
Ciara Mageean has adopted a policy of keeping it simple and it has worked so far, writes John O'Brien
THE night draws in on another session. At the 200m mark the shrill sound of Eamon Christie's whistle pierces the Belfast air and, at his signal, two girls push hard for home.
The coach knows they are tired now, approaching the limit of their endurance, but still he drives them on. He cajoles them into one last, lung-bursting effort, hoping to instil the belief that, although they are close to exhaustion, they can still aim higher. Still ask themselves for more.
When they are done, Ciara Mageean finds the support of a wooden barrier to anchor her burning legs and, oblivious to her surroundings, coughs a long stream of phlegm into the grass beside her. She gasps for breath and forces a broad smile. "Alright?" Christie asks. "Yeah, grand," she replies. The ankle she tweaked running for the bus in Portaferry that afternoon has stood up to the test. She couldn't feel better.
When she is racing there are times Mageean will cross the line hoping to find a quiet spot where she can throw up, or any available space beside the track if she cannot. She tries to eat as lightly as she can on the day of a big race, but not to the detriment of her performance. She's not embarrassed anymore. She's an athlete trying to be the best she can be, she says, not auditioning for the Rose of Tralee.
For a time it bothered her. Once at an indoor meet she threw up after the line, found herself apologising profusely and offering to clean up the mess. She just lives with it now. When she claimed a remarkable silver in the 1,500m at last year's World Junior Championships, she was immediately surrounded by a posse of reporters, stunned that an unheralded white Irish girl could live with the best Africans in the world. "Excuse me a moment," she said. She had business to take care of first.
"I suppose it's kind of strange," she says. "Sometimes when I'm coming into a race I know I'll be throwing up afterwards, but I don't mind it that much. I mean if I could change it I would but it's not something I worry about. I've come off the track many's the time and thrown up and anybody who's been with me knows that. It tends to happen if I run a PB or a season's best so it's nearly like if I run a fast race and don't throw up I wouldn't be happy."
Her constant fear is of leaving the track with the uneasy feeling that she still had more to give. At the European Cross-Country Championships in Portugal last month, she ran well and finished seventh but felt too comfortable at the finish. She hadn't emptied herself. Broken her first rule of running. "I don't want to finish and think 'oh, I could have run faster'. I want to be completely exhausted. If you finish fifth and know you've run your guts out, that's okay. You've run the hardest you could."
She was 11 when she learned the lesson, competing at a cross-country meet in Newtownards, the first proper race of her life. She finished fourth, missing a medal because, half-way through, she'd felt tired and stopped to a walk. She had waited for the cover of trees before stopping, ashamed that people would notice her taking the soft option, and vowed on the way home that she would never do so again. "I had to get rid of that mentality," she says. "I wouldn't have got very far."
Christie has coached Mageean since she was 13 when Helen McCambridge, her PE teacher at Assumption Grammar School, Ballynahinch, contacted Northern Ireland Athletics to alert them to her potential. At first he had little reason to imagine she was anything other than mildly promising. He had another athlete, Joanna Mills, who had beaten Mageean any time they'd met. Mills was one of the best juniors around, though. There was no shame in it.
Three months later, he took them to Tullamore for the 1,500m under 15 championships. For three laps Mills and Mageean ran shoulder to shoulder. He waited for Mills, the more seasoned campaigner, to assert her dominance over the final 400m. But with 300m to go he watched Mageean power clear and put 10 seconds on her rival by the time they reached the line. "Fuck," he remembers thinking. What exactly had he just witnessed?
Two years later, she lined up for the national senior indoor championships at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast. Christie had quietly told friends to expect something special, thinking she might win in something like 4:35 or thereabouts. In the event she blitzed the field in a time of 4:24.07, shaving two seconds off the existing junior record and the first of the Sonia O'Sullivan comparisons were born.
Under Christie, her progress has been relentless. He has watched her develop from the five minute-plus athlete he first saw at 13 into the sub-4:10 phenomenon who stunned the athletics' world in Canada last August, running almost six seconds quicker than she'd ever run in her life. O'Sullivan's long-standing junior records have tumbled. And because he has deliberately kept her training schedule light, Christie is certain there is more to come before she hits the inevitable plateau.
Canada worked like a dream. Christie figured correctly that the Kenyans and Ethiopians, no love lost between them, would cut their throats up front and that the American girl, Jordan Hasay, would try to slug it out with them. He didn't fancy her chances. He told Mageean not to worry if a gap opened up. The key was not to panic, trust that her heart and finishing speed would stand to her on the last lap.
The race panned out exactly as he had predicted. At half-way he clocked her at 2:09, not quick, but she was still on her toes, still in control. Then when the bell sounded and she began to bear down on the leader, Tizta Bogale, he thought for a few strides that she might kick on for victory, but the Ethiopian proved too strong. He thinks of the 61-second first lap they ran that day, how comfortably she lived with such searing pace and the possibilities it induces for the future. Four steady laps like that, he thinks. Almost scary to imagine.
Ask him for a defining memory, though, and he takes you back to Bydgoszcz two years previously. Mageean's first World Junior Championships. He points to a spot maybe five feet in front of him. The distance, he says, she dipped to clinch fifth place in her heat and make the final as a fastest loser. "I still look at that photograph sometimes," he says. "To know what she had to do at 16. That the width of this vest will get me into this final. Incredible."
Christie knows they have reached a critical stage in the athlete's development. She is pushing 19 now, her A Levels behind her and a life to think about too beyond athletics. She spent the first week of the month helping out in a veterinary clinic in Downpatrick and, somewhere down the line, she'd love the chance to pursue such a path in university. How that would combine with her athletic ambitions is a conundrum she will have to work out.
Even before Canada she was an athlete in demand: scholarship offers pouring in from America, the UK and Ireland. She visited Villanova and Providence and spent time at Loughborough University in England, but for all the vigour with which they pursued her, she found they had little to offer her academically. Christie's distaste for the US collegiate running system is well known, but he insists he didn't exert pressure on her not to go. She is inherently capable of making her own decisions.
He knows the day might come when she decides to move further afield. She'll do so with his blessing. Still, he thinks how far they've come. As a runner Christie was coached by Jim Kennedy and Kennedy's philosophy of keeping things simple became his own. It suited Mageean too. Growing up in Portaferry in the Ards peninsula, her father Chris was one of the best hurlers in Down and that was her first love. Pucking a ball around the local hurling field with her sister every day and then, when she started running, pounding lap after lonely lap around the same muddy field.
School, camogie, running, home. She can't imagine a happier childhood. And she likes it too that, with Christie, the simplicity has been retained. Just a coach, a physio and a small, happy group of athletes. No expanding retinue. No army of agents, nutritionists or psychologists to complicate things. "Running isn't rocket science," he tells them. She needs no gimmicks to help her run fast, no music to pump herself up before a race. "I just like to have my own mind," she says. "My own voices in my head telling me what to do."
As much as he can, Christie shields her from the pressures of her growing reputation. The senior figures within Irish athletics insisting she has to go to America for the sake of her career. Like Sonia did, as if she has to meekly follow in the legend's footsteps. The coach senses too that there are those within the narrow confines of Northern Ireland athletics who wouldn't mind seeing her hitting a bump. Those put out at the stubbornly independent path they have chosen to follow. Such pettiness, he is sure, would simply wash over her.
There are no clouds in her life right now. Last week brought the announcement of a lucrative sponsorship deal with the Boston-based footwear giant, New Balance. She had been courted by all the big companies -- Nike, Asics, adidas -- but most of them had waved wordy, multi-paged contracts in front of her.
The New Balance deal was just two pages long, though, and, even more than the figures, guaranteed them total control over their own race schedule, a freedom granted in only the most exceptional of cases.
She doesn't see any of this changing her. She'll still blush when someone makes the Sonia comparison, still talk humbly of the day, when she was 14, when she was selected for a day out at the Mary Peters' Sports Academy and she didn't even know who Northern Ireland's most famous athlete was. She hears people talking about her as if she is a full-time athlete and the words seem strange and ill-fitting.
"I never really imagined myself as a professional athlete. Lots of people say it and it makes me laugh. 'Cos I'm doing exactly the same as I was at this time last year when I was doing my A Levels. Training hasn't changed at all. Like, people think you can make a fortune in athletics. They don't see how hard it is. Anything can happen. It can all go down the tubes in a flash. At some stage I want to go into university. Putting all your hopes into athletics isn't a good thing."
For now it's enough to think about the next day. The next race. On Tuesday, she'll head for the Armory in New York City for a 1,500m indoor race for New Balance athletes, a chance to impress in front of her new sponsors. She had an invitation to run in the Millrose Games the following week, but will be at home instead, getting ready to defend her national indoor title at the Odyssey next month. That's the stage they are at now. Turning down prestigious events because they don't fit her schedule.
After Belfast, she will train for the European Juniors in Estonia in July. Her last big target as a junior. After that she will chase the Olympic target for 2012. Christie figures the B standard will be in the region of 4.07 and she will be disappointed if she doesn't reach that mark somewhere during the year.
Push him gently and he states his belief that she'll run 4.04 over 1,500m this year and go close to breaking the two-minute barrier over 800m.
He isn't afraid of such bold predictions. He has never shied away from them in the past and, so far, Mageean has always made them come true.
Sunday Indo Sport